Twitter, textshots, and linking

A few months ago, I had some tenuously connected thoughts about textshots, linked list-style blog posts, and the way linking works (and doesn’t work) in HTML. They never coalesced into a blog post, but last week’s news that Twitter is planning to add a 10,000-character extension to tweets got me thinking about them again. We’ll see if this turns into something coherent or not.

The best thing about Twitter’s confirmation that it was looking into a way to do extended tweets is that it was done through a tweet with textshot by Jack Dorsey, something that the new feature should do away with.

Dorsey textshot

(And I’ve just done a screenshot of his textshot, so the snake is swallowing its tail.)

Textshots are the Twitter community’s clever workaround for Twitter’s blessing and curse: the 140-character limit. Everyone likes the idea of brevity, but there are times when you can’t fit the whole story in a single tweet. Textshots are the solution.

They aren’t a good solution, though. Text that’s been turned into an image isn’t searchable and it uses more bandwith. The only thing textshots have going for them is that they work and nothing else does.

It’s interesting that Dorsey’s tweet is, in my opinion, an example of the worst kind of textshot—one in which the image is of text the tweeter himself wrote. To me, something this long should go in a blog post, not a tweet or even a series of tweets. Given that it’s Jack Dorsey, this particular announcement is a special case, and I find it funny instead of annoying.

The people I follow use textshots for a very different reason. They are writing a short comment on a longer piece, and they want to give their followers not just a link to the longer piece but also an immediate view of a particular passage from that piece. Tweets like this are in keeping with the spirit of brevity inherent within Twitter, and manage to give readers a good sense of the longer piece without forcing them to leave their Twitter client. In my timeline, Federico Viticci has long been the master of this kind of textshot tweet.

Viticci textshot

In fact, because the people I follow are tasteful and considerate citizens of Twitter, I didn’t know that the self-quoting textshot was common until I read Jason Snell’s post about how Notes is the go-to app for writing the text that people use for these irksome, unTwitterlike tweets.

(To be fair, as Jason points out in the latest episode of Upgrade, not everyone has a convenient place to post longer writing that gets to the audience they want to reach. There’s Facebook, of course, but Facebook friends tend to be real-life friends and aren’t as widely dispersed as Twitter followers.)

When I started seeing textshot tweets, especially Federico’s, I was struck by how similar they are to linked list-style blog posts, the canonical example of which are John Gruber’s at Daring Fireball.1 The ideal linked list post is:

Once upon a time, Gruber’s linked list posts—and the thought he put into choosing what to link to—were the incentive to sign up for a DF membership. Even today, the Daring Fireball has odd legacy features that grew out of the distinction he made between linked list posts and “regular” posts: there’s an RSS feed for just the regular posts and there’s a URL that gives you just the linked list posts.

Today, Twitter seems like the natural place to do this sort of thing.2 Textshots work, but they’re clumsy. The extended tweets, however they’re implemented, will almost certainly be a better solution. This doesn’t mean textshots will die; over six years after the introduction of native retweets, you still see “RT” tweets. Some people never learn.

Looking at quoting and linking in a broader sense, it seems odd that links are controlled more by the citee than the citer. In HTML, you cannot link to just any part of a web document, only to either the document as a whole or to particular spots that the document’s author has designated by including tags with id attributes.

I understand that there are practical obstacles to allowing links to any part of a document, but given the web’s origin as a place for researchers and academics, for whom precise citation is vital, I’m surprised that better granularity of links wasn’t one of the web’s most important goals. Authors often don’t know which parts of their writing will turn out to be the most important or the most useful, so it doesn’t make sense to give them such complete control over how their work can be linked to.

I’m sure that through JavaScript’s access to the DOM, web authors and publishers could include a script that allows direct linking to, for example, the nth paragraph of any article. That would allow more specific linking without forcing the author to scatter id attributes throughout the documents. The script could also highlight the desired text, just like we do with textshots, to draw the reader’s attention. But this isn’t a universal solution because it would only work for documents that include such a script.

Obviously, this linking deficiency hasn’t crippled the growth of the web, but I do think the web would be better if referrers had finer-grained control over their links.

In any event, even with the crude linking we’re stuck with, I look forward to Twitter’s new extended tweets. I’ll feel much better about quoting others when I can do it with real text instead of textshots.

  1. As best I can tell, Gruber is the originator of the term “linked list” as it applies to this style of blog post. It’s an exceptionally clever name and is widely used by people who probably don’t know it’s a computer science pun. 

  2. If you put aside the issue of monetization, which you can’t for professional bloggers.